Advising the National Trust for Scotland is an in-house role with a vast diversity of work to reflect the organisation's activities, as this month's interviewee tells us
Where do you come from and what was your career path to your current position?
I am a Falkirk Bairn. We travel and have lived abroad, but there is no good reason to live anywhere other than Falkirk.
After university I joined PwC and trained as a chartered accountant. The financial and business training I received has been invaluable in legal practice. On qualification, I completed my legal training and worked in corporate and commercial private practice before moving in-house. Before my present role I was group counsel to the Globespan airline and travel group. It operated its own short and long-haul flights to and from Scotland, and aircraft on behalf of other airlines around the world, all from an innocuous HQ in Colinton, Edinburgh.
The airline business was fascinating and I met some wonderful characters. However, the opportunity to establish an in-house practice at the Trust was a real draw. It was not an obvious move but, like many charities, the Trust has been developing a more businesslike approach and was looking for a general commercial background. It is a perfect fit for my personal interests in history, landscape and art, and the legal work reflects its enormous variety of activity. No two days are the same.
How is your in-house team structured? Do you take on trainees or interns?
We are now a team of three: two solicitors and our insurance and contracts officer. Team responsibilities incorporate the Trust’s secretariat functions, insurance and licensing. We carry out as much of the legal work as possible within the team.
We do not take on trainees just now, mainly due to budgetary constraints. We do, however, take volunteers and interns into the department. The Trust benefits from over 3,000 volunteers throughout the country, carrying out duties ranging from rhododendron bashing, guiding and pathbuilding to committee work and trusteeship. We are hugely reliant on their goodwill and endeavour, and the legal department is no exception. We can always find interesting projects for them. In association with the University of Glasgow we run the annual Colin Donald Environmental Law essay prize for law students in Scotland; part of the prize is an internship opportunity with our team.
What input do you have into strategy and governance?
As solicitor and secretary I have the benefit of seeing the organisation from top to bottom. It makes a great deal of sense to conjoin the roles, but they are quite distinct and bring their own challenges. An annual secretarial challenge is the elections to our board of 14 trustees. The majority are directly elected by the membership and retire by rotation. We have over 370,000 members, the highest number in our history. Each has the right to vote and it is a privilege to administer that process (I say that with this year’s elections firmly behind us).
What motivates you when you head to work?
That is simple: our work and purpose. The National Trust for Scotland is first and foremost a cause. Established in 1931, its purposes are as relevant now as they were then: to promote the conservation, access and enjoyment of Scotland’s beautiful and historic places. We care for some extraordinary places and objects, including wild land, islands, battlefields, gardens, birthplaces, vernacular and working buildings, art collections and artefacts. Our portfolio includes 46 Munros; 400 islands and islets with 1,000,000 seabirds; 10,000 archaeological sites; and St Kilda, Britain’s only dual World Heritage Site. It is our job to protect them for future generations and encourage as many people as possible to enjoy them today.
The legal work is varied and often quite idiosyncratic. Part of the joy of the role is the constant discovery of new things about our estates. However, it is fair to say that it was only the legal department which did not show unalloyed joy at the discovery of a Raphael Madonna at Haddo House this year. Our insurance bill did go up!
What was the biggest change when you moved in-house? Do you miss private practice?
I am tempted to say not in the least. However, there are times when it is helpful (and comforting) to have other lawyers with different specialties around you. But one of the benefits of working in-house is the opportunity to work with people with very different backgrounds and experience. The Trust has experts in archaeology, forestry, buildings, museum collections, gardens, wildlife and more. They can all offer a very different perspective and colour to the working environment.
Working in-house also offers the chance to become more involved in the early developmental stages of projects. There are areas of work where legal risk can be mitigated in a worthwhile way but where the cost of external advice may be prohibitive or potential legal problems simply not identified.
How have the Trust’s recent governance changes impacted on your work?
After a major independent review in 2010, the Trust moved from a governing council of 100 or so and a subsidiary board to a smaller unitary and non-executive board, a shift of historic proportions. We are governed by our Acts of Parliament; most of the change was carried out within these but we had to seek a new private Act of the Scottish Parliament in 2013 to tidy up some loose ends.
The whole process was a fascinating project. Last year we reviewed the effectiveness of the new election system and made further changes in relation to candidate assessment processes. I think it is important to keep these systems under continuous review to ensure they do not turn into part of our historic collections.
Is now a good or bad time for heritage bodies? What are the current hot topics in your sector?
This is a time of rapid change in the sector. The Trust is fortunate in that it is not heavily reliant on public funding, as much of our income comes from our members, donors and legacies. However, the general reduction in public financing across the whole charity sector is having an impact. There are a lot of organisations seeking similar aims and objectives, and it is inevitable that bodies will start to work together more closely both within and across heritage sectors.
The sector as a whole must also engage people with our work. Promoting access to heritage is one of our charitable purposes and is key to the survival and development of the sector. The country’s landscape and townscapes belong to us all and are conserved for us to enjoy. This is the public benefit we deliver. Without that the point of conservation is lost.
What is your most unusual/amusing work experience?
My most unusual and valued experiences are usually out on our estate. My work sometimes takes me around the country to visit properties. I still enjoy the feeling of pulling aside the wee red rope and looking behind the scenes in our buildings, or tramping muddy paths to inspect boundaries. We do have some beautiful backdrops to meeting rooms.
What makes a good in-house lawyer? Would you encourage young lawyers to work in-house?
I can understand why more organisations are seeing the value of in-house counsel. A good in-house lawyer has a level of understanding of an organisation and is very attuned to the broader considerations of decision making such as risk and reputation. An understanding of finance is crucial, particularly in the charity sector. Finally, it is important to remember that the in-house legal service is provided to the whole organisation. In an open-plan office we try to keep the mindset of an open-door policy. Most folk simply adopt the drive-by meeting method and that works for me.
In-house work is not for everyone, but I think it can appeal to those with a real interest in a sector or simply in a broader approach to legal work.
What do you look for when you seek external legal advice from solicitors or counsel?
We are fortunate to have an experienced and high-quality external panel. Broadly, we call on them as extra capacity or as specialists for particular areas. Price is a factor in selection but not the overriding factor. We look for overall value for our charitable funds. I am rarely impressed when an external solicitor provides a long treatise on the law but does not reach a clear conclusion. We need clear and unambiguous advice and that is what we expect to receive.
Is the in-house sector well represented in terms of equality and diversity?
I think the profession has made steady advances over recent years. However, there is still work to be done. I am heartened to see schemes such as the mentoring initiative from the Law Society of Scotland, but there needs to be a broader approach to increasing social mobility into the profession. Although this is a broader societal problem, if we each take small steps to promote broader access we will start to make inroads. It is our personal responsibility.
How have attitudes and working practices changed in the law since you started out?
The profession has moved in the same way as the TV news. We had two channels which delivered the news at the times they wanted, and we now have 24-hour rolling coverage and a choice of channels. Technology has been a big driver. The five-to-five Friday afternoon fax is long gone. The Friday afternoon email is likely to receive a response over the weekend now.
Personally, I enjoy the increased flexibility this offers. My working hours fit with my family circumstances. I think it is important to make the technology work for us and not become beholden to it. Sometimes that requires self-discipline and management of expectations. However, I admit that shutting those emails off at the weekend can still be problematic.
What keeps you busy outside the office?
I will be careful how I answer. I once worked for a partner who threw away any CV which said the applicant played badminton. In his view no one actually plays badminton and any applicant who said they did must be lying! We occasionally play badminton as a family. Driving the family taxi keeps me quite busy, but I also try to find time to pick up my paintbrushes. I’m not holding my breath for my exhibition opening night though.
What would you take with you to a desert island?
I am a late convert to Spotify, so let’s hope the desert island has broadband!
Stephen Small, solicitor and Trust secretary, National Trust for Scotland
Questions put by Fraser Hudghton, head of member engagement for in-house lawyers, Law Society of Scotland